Sunday, October 27, 2013

COMIC BOOKS, THEN AND NOW

Note: This post uses the general term "comics" throughout to mean specifically Marvel superhero comics.

Okay, look -- I don't mean for this to turn into a "get off my lawn" rant, but there's a good chance it will. I am 34 years old -- apparently the target audience for today's superhero comics (which is ludicrous to begin with) -- and I fully, honestly believe comics were better when I was younger than they are now. I don't necessarily mean from a technical standpoint, of course. While I admit I tend to prefer many of the artists of my youth to the ones of today, there are plenty of great artists doing excellent work nowadays. And computer coloring and lettering, when done well, blow most of the old stuff out of the water.

Art by Jim Lee (left, 1991) and Dale Keown (right, 2011).
Note the much brighter, more exciting, and visually appealing
colors on the left piece vs the drab, boring hues on the left.

My main issue doesn't lie with the skill of today's writers either, though I feel they are creatively not on the same level as some of the guys I grew up with. But from a writing standpoint, my problem stems from the fact that modern comics have eliminated some great conventions which were somewhat unique to comics -- third person narration and though balloons being the biggest ones. And beyond that, too many of today's writers feel a need to be dark and "realistic" when they should be shooting for over-the-top, bombastic, and -- fun.

I've seen it speculated that many of today's writers are embarassed to be writing superheroes, so they try to twist the genre into something of which they can be less ashamed. I'm not sure I disagree with that assessment. I enjoyed much of Ed Brubaker's CAPTAIN AMERICA run, but it sure didn't feel like my Cap. The story was usually dark and moody rather than optimistic and upbeat, and the colors were dull and subdued to match. They fit the story, but the story didn't fit the character.

And unfortunately, that sort of drab "realism" has spilled into every aspect of the work. Artists no longer draw speed lines and other fun special effects. They're forced (or perhaps they prefer) to draw characters wearing "realistic" costumes covered in seams, zippers, and pouches. Can anyone -- anyone on the face of the Earth -- honestly and with a straight face declare that the Marvel NOW! Captain America is more visually appealing than the original costume? Sure, it might work better on screen, but on the printed page it just looks like an over-designed abomination.

Art by John Romita (left) and Joe Quesada (the dopey one on the right)
And speaking of abominations, that brings me to my next point -- why is every member of the Hulk's supporting cast a Hulk-like creature? This is a symptom of a larger issue, which is that superheroes just don't seem special or unique in their own comics anymore. There was a time when Bruce Banner was hunted and alone as the Hulk. Now he's just part of one big family. There was a time when Spider-Man was an outsider, mistrusted by the public and even by some of his fellow heroes. Now he's an Avenger -- one of about a hundred characters that seem to currently carry that honor. The universe has shrunk. The superheroes all know each other and hang out together regularly. Guest apperances are no longer a special occasion, they're the norm. Supporting casts have mostly fallen by the wayside. When there are no civilians around to marvel at the feats of our heroes, their feats no longer seem special. It all just feels sort of... inbred, for lack of a better word.

(Case in point: Against my better judgment, on the recommendation of the entire internet, I picked up the first few trades of Mark Waid's DAREDEVIL. I was enjoying the stories and most of the art, but by the third and fourth collections, when Daredevil was calling on the Avengers for help every other issue, I gave up. Daredevil is not a team player, and the Avengers appearing in his series as anything other than antagonists or uncomfortable allies is ridiculous.)

But the last point, the major one for me, is simply the style of the stories. Marvel could win me back with two major changes to their philosophy: One, I discussed above: brighter, more colorful costumes and stories in general. But the way in which those stories are written would need to be changed, too. I can live without melodramatic cover blurbs, narrative captions, and even my beloved thought balloons, if I must. But the fundamental storytelling style that brought me into comics all those years ago is gone.

Example: In almost any regular issue of an ongoing series from my youth, there were a lot of plates spinning. You might pick up an issue of X-MEN to find the group fighting some villain-of-the-month, but as they were doing so, they would each be troubled by their own ongoing sub-plots, and besides all that, you would get a page or two devoted to totally unrelated events which might eventually pay off next issue, or a few months later, or even a year later. It was layered. It gave you a sense that big things were happening, even if the story at hand wasn't immediately related to those things.

This style fell by the wayside over a decade ago, when Marvel began "writing for the trade". Densely layered sub-plots are gone. Heck, foreshadowing is practically gone! It's just story arc after story arc, and while some continue into the next, they all tend to be complete, finite stories, to make them better fit a collected edition. Gone are the days when a villain would attack for no apparent reason, then disappear to be revisted and have his motives clarified sometime later. Now we just have an endless cycle of the same thing over and over again, ad nauseum. Nothing feels new and exciting anymore. It's all variations of the same plot structure.

(Waid's DAREDEVIL, mentioned above, does take the sub-plot approach somewhat -- but still not in the way comics used to. The sub-plots are far more casual than they should be, lacking any sort of urgency and intrigue. They're presented in a very clinical manner.)

Art by John Romita, Jr.
I've often said that I hold Roger Stern's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN -- especially the final year or so -- as the gold standard for how a solo superhero series should be written. Every arc is two chapters at most, with one exception. But there are ongoing sub-plots throughout, a rich and diverse supporting cast, and an overarching mystery in the form of the Hobgoblin. If Marvel would instruct all their writers to read, study, and learn from this run, I would give them another chance.

Heck, I would even give them a look if they forced their writers to go to the Scott Lobdell style of storytelling.  In complete honesty, I would much rather have sub-plots and soap operatics that get dropped and/or go nowhere, but seem important, than no sub-plots or soap operatics whatsoever.  When you read a Lobdell comic in the 90s, at least you felt like what you were reading meant something to an overall, larger narrative.  That feeling does not exist in anything I've seen coming out of Marvel nowadays.  Every issue feels like a short snippet of a single self-contained movie, rather than a small piece of a huge puzzle.

Essentially, where the comics I grew up on were structured like a serialized television series, the comics published nowadays are structured like a series of films.  Every story arc has a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end, and the sub-plots and character development are usually limited to those separate arcs, rather than muddled together into a never-ending, serialized adventure story.  And I could forgive a lot of what I don't like if Marvel would just go back to the "TV" style rather than the "movie" style.

But as it is, I don't see myself ever reading a new Marvel comic again. I know they won't lose sleep over one guy not reading their books, and that's fine -- but it's still kind of sad. Again -- I'm 34. Marvel claims I'm their target audience. But for me the point of reading a comic is to re-live my childhood, not find something that appeals to my adulthood.

But at least I've got my collected editions...!

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